This year, an estimated 735,000 Americans will have a heart attack. It will be a first heart attack for more than 500,000 of those people. Navigating life after a heart attack can be filled with anxiety, uncertainty and questions. “Patients that have suffered a heart attack are at an increased risk for having another heart attack within the first couple of months,” shares Theresa King, RN, cardiac rehab nurse with the AACVPR-certified BSA cardiac rehabilitation program. While cardiac rehab has been shown to reduce the risk of death from a recurrent heart event, experts believe only 20 percent of eligible patients are taking advantage of such programs. One important conversation heart patients need to have with their doctor is when they should start cardiac rehab.
Medically-supervised cardiac rehab can slow, stabilize or even reverse the progression of cardiovascular disease. “It is important to participate in cardiac rehab after any heart event, because the heart has been stressed or compromised and is more susceptible to additional injury,” explains King. “Completing a cardiac rehab program can improve heart function and overall health, including lowering heart rate, blood pressure and blood sugar.”
There are no physical fitness requirements to starting cardiac rehab, whether the patient ran marathons or did not participate in regular exercise at all. Each patient is evaluated on a personal level to determine their baseline for rehab. “A patient’s activity level before a heart attack does not indicate what their exercise level will be after a heart attack,” shares King. “It is important to gradually reintroduce exercise after a heart attack. The patient’s cardiologist works with our cardiac rehab team to take into consideration multiple factors, such as location of the heart damage and current physical activity status, to determine the appropriate exercise prescription for each individual.”
Cardiac rehab is more than just getting back on the treadmill or recumbent bike. Anyone who has suffered a heart attack or is recovering from a heart procedure should not consider cardiac rehab as just gradually getting back into exercise. It is a comprehensive program of monitored exercise, education, counseling, support and life-long maintenance.
“Endurance and physical fitness can significantly change after a heart attack depending on the area and amount of damage to the heart muscle and coronary circulation,” says King. “While it is important for a patient to resume physical activity when cleared by their cardiologist, their heart may not be able to maintain the level of activity they performed prior to the heart event. It is imperative to begin exercise slowly and increase gradually rather than resuming exercise at the same intensity you were performing prior to the heart attack. This is why it is important for your doctor to prescribe a medically supervised outpatient cardiac rehab program.”